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CastAR and the promise of augmented reality games Exclusive

CastAR and the promise of augmented reality games
November 27, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Augmented reality devices are right around the corner; in the case of Google Glass, they're already here. One thing the companies working on them have in common is their expectation that these devices will be transformative for the video game space.

To find out more, Gamasutra recently spoke to several of the companies deeply involved in creating these devices and the technology that powers them. But one startup stands out: Technical Illusions, formed by two former Valve staffers, Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson.

The pair was in the process of developing the technology as a potential peripheral for Valve's Steam Machines initiative, Ellsworth tells Gamasutra -- until they were, without warning, terminated from the company.

Fortunately, their story doesn't end there. Technical Illusions recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for its CastAR glasses. Rather than overlaying images on an unchanged reality in the manner of Google Glass, CastAR will allow players to project game situations into real life.

To find out more about Technical Illusions and the potential applications of CastAR, read on.

Where did the idea for CastAR come from?

Jeri Ellsworth: At Valve, I was trying to solve the problem with headaches caused by using near-to-eye displays like Google Glass that put a display just millimeters away from your eyes. I had built a near-to-eye display system on my workbench, which consisted of projectors and optics.

One day I accidently put a beam splitter in backwards and instead of the image projecting into my eye, it projected out into the room. I was moving my head around trying to figure out why I wasn't seeing an image, when I saw a glint of an image on a piece of retro-reflective material out in the hardware lab.

I noticed that the image was very bright and comfortable to look at, so I started to explore more of the properties of whether retro-reflective material could be used as a display device. The more I explored it, the more I realized that there were huge advantages: the glasses could be lighter, the image wouldn't cause headaches, the simplified optics meant we could drive the cost of the headset down to a consumer-friendly price.

The first test unit was a giant helmet like device that had big projectors and circuit boards hanging off of it. We lovingly called it "The Head Crab." At this point, we proved that this could do stereoscopic images, so I immediately started working on miniaturizing the glasses and developing a precision head tracker that used inexpensive components.

Was CastAR primarily (or solely) envisioned as a device for games?

JE: CastAR was conceived as a peripheral for the Steam Box to make it a more compelling consumer purchase for the living room. I had always envisioned it for being used for other things, but the mandate from Valve was to come up with the best game experiences we could. Since the launch of Kickstarter, it is exciting to see a lot of non-gaming interest in the device.

Rick Johnson: Although our background is in the game industry, we've seen interest for use of CastAR on movie sets, aviation simulation, biology research, university general research, education, medical, and geological survey. These all represent areas taking existing methodologies into a new collaborative and visual experience that allows for better understanding and exploration.

Why'd you decide to cast off (ha) on your own and pursue the device outside of Valve?

JE: It is a complicated set of situations that lead to me being pushed out of Valve. I was extremely disappointed when it happened, but Gabe allowed us to negotiate acquiring the rights to the technology. It took a lot of faith to continue to develop the hardware outside of an umbrella of a big company, but my intuition on how popular it would be was proven when we hit our funding goal only 53 hours into our Kickstarter campaign.

RJ: The day we were let go from Valve, it came as a complete surprise to both of us. Neither of us were given any warning or indication that something was wrong. Jeri and I are extremely hard, dedicated workers. We often worked until 4am on this project while at Valve; not because we had to, but because we had a passion to create something truly amazing and help bring about the next visual and interactive revolution in the industry.

We developed a lot of practices to try and gain an understanding of the AR space as well as how to find ways people could interact in the physical world with the virtual world. We've already created two devices, the Magic Wand and the RFID Tracking Grid, that bridge these worlds together. Jeri and I already have many incredible ideas on how to continue advancing this space in the future.

The Kickstarter video shows a potential application in storytelling games. Can you talk about the possibilities of blending video and non-video games together using AR?

JE: For me, roleplaying games were never very desirable. My friends were always well versed in these rule sets and I was late to the game. Now I see the potential of having complicated rules automatically enforced by the computer. This allows me to just sit down and enjoy the game, without having to devote hours upon hours of reading up on rules and understanding their sometimes complex relationships.

RJ: For traditional book based role playing games, your experience was very much dependent upon having a dungeon master that had a strong imagination of the fantasy world you were playing in and an ability to verbalize those surroundings and interactions. Such a gifted DM is few and far between.

Over time, visual props have been used to help progress your view into this fantasy world. Now, with CastAR, you can bridge that gap by easily creating your fantasy world for all of the viewers to see. Each participant can get a unique view of the world, such as the DM could see the entire dungeon and the players only able to see the tiny parts visible via the fog of war.

What about AR versions of "traditional" video games -- what are the possibilities there?

RJ: One of our early tests was to take the original NES version of Super Mario Bros. and convert that into a 3D / AR environment. I took the flat tile graphics and extruded them into 3D, then laid out the entire first level. You could look down the side of the level and see it all the way off into the distance, up until the castle. Moving your head, you could look down the level to get a better understanding of what turtles were about to attack you, as well as any pits you may have to avoid. As you played Mario along the level, the depth created by this simple experiment was pretty amazing and gave new life into an old and traditional way to doing a platformer.

JE: I was always envisioning Left4Dead by having a supplemental game mode where I could see the entire level laid out on the table while my friends were playing the game as the survivors in first person mode. I would then take over the role as the director. By using the Magic Wand, I could circle out where a horde of zombies should attack from. Or I could use the wand to point a location that the special infected should ambush the players.

Can you talk to me specifically about the design decisions you made with your device, and how and why they differ from other AR devices/approaches?

JE: We initially discussed the ultimately experience that AR could deliver: being able to fully walk around and have games played on your floor or walls, on a bus, almost anywhere in the real world. Upon exploring this idea, it quickly became apparent to us that the raw amount of engineering effort it would take to accomplish this would take 10 years or longer.

We then narrowed down our objectives to something we could get done in a much shorter time frame as well as being able to deliver an excellent experience. This lead to our final objectives of it being the absolute best experience on your table, desk, living room, etc. while offered at an extremely affordable consumer price.

Basic question: When people are using CastAR, how much does it get in the way of normal conversation/interaction?

RJ: Recently, a CEO of a game company was wearing CastAR and playing around with one of our games. He received a text message on his phone and instinctively went to grab his phone and read it. A moment later, while reading his message, he suddenly realized what he was doing: reading his cell phone while still wearing and using CastAR. His realization quickly turned into a moment of excitement that you could still interact in a social environment.

JE: For me, I really enjoy multiplayer games with my friends. Since the CastAR glasses are completely transparent, I can look across the table and observe my friends' reactions when I pull a really epic move. I've never had this kind of experience with traditional video games, because we are all sitting side by side collectively focusing at a TV.

What excites you about AR so much that you want to pursue this device and dedicate you to the space itself?

RJ: I've been in the video game industry for many, many years. I've seen games transition from 2D to 2.5D to 3D, to hardware 3D accelerated, to internet play, to massive internet play. This is the first time that I've been on the side of transforming what gaming will offer for the future. Finding new ways to create exciting gameplay has been one of the more rewarding aspects on my journey in this space.

JE: For me, I used to play first person shooters. Over time, they were no longer as exciting to play as they used to be; they became stagnant with the same gameplay mechanics. I see the AR space as a way to create new game experiences as well as supplement existing game mechanics via the example I described above for Left4Dead.

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